Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 9th, 2015

Last week we were bemoaning the fact that the conference’s early season struggles had put it clearly behind the eight-ball. For example, in naming our top five non-conference wins, we had to include UNLV’s win over Cal Poly and Boise State’s win over UC Irvine. This week, however, following the Runnin’ Rebels defeat of Oregon, not only does the Mountain West have another fine scalp, the league has also got a team in those same Rebels with the makings of a legitimate at-large resume. Now, there’s a long, long way between here and Selection Sunday, but at least we can say there is some hope that the Mountain West is something more than a conference-tourney-winner take all one-bid league. And along the way, we’re ready to vault UNLV right into the role of the conference favorite.

UNLV's Most Recent Resume Win Has Dave Rice And Co. As Conference Favorites

UNLV’s Most Recent Resume Win Has Dave Rice And Co. As Conference Favorites.

 Power Rankings

  1. UNLV (7-1) – A technically neutral-site win over Oregon on Friday night gives the Runnin’ Rebels the two best non-conference wins in the Mountain West, arguably three of the top five and put them on the national top 25 radar. What’s more, that game against Oregon showed a lot of the things that have been missing around Vegas in recent years. First, there was far more ball movement that the nine assists on 26 made field goals would have you believe. Second, there was camaraderie and chemistry, all the signs of a group of teammates that actually get along with each other. And third, there were productive coaching adjustments and coherent offensive strategies against changing defenses. Ongoing doubts about Dave Rice’s ability to pull it all together for this team are still reasonable, but there is plenty of reason for hope. And with a trip to Wichita State tonight followed on down the line by dates with Arizona State and Arizona, we’ll continue to get chances to test that hope. Exciting times for the Rebs.
  2. Boise State (5-4)After a high-profile week at the Wooden Legacy, the Broncos flew under the radar this week, with a road in at Portland their biggest accomplishment. The good news is, senior Anthony Drmic blew up against Portland with a 24-point, seven-board performance that provides hope that he’s beginning to get healthier.

    San Diego State's Dismal Performance Against San Diego Raises Serious Questions (Christian Deleon, Fox Sports San Diego)

    San Diego State’s Dismal Performance Against San Diego Raises Serious Questions (Christian Deleon, Fox Sports San Diego)

  3. San Diego State (6-4) – A week ago, there was every reason to give this team a ton of rope and assume that Steve Fisher would get this thing turned around sooner rather than later. But after Sunday, when they lost to cross-city school San Diego (a team that is in the midst of a rebuilding year under new head coach Lamont Smith; a team that has already lost to Western Michigan, Cal State Fullerton, Loyola Chicago and San Jose State) in a game at Petco Park which was supposed to be little more than a local infomercial for the San Diego State program, let’s just say there are serious questions now. The questions aren’t about talent or athleticism: we know the Aztecs have that. The big questions aren’t even about outside shooting or offensive playmaking, legitimate questions still for this team. The big questions are about effort, and they’re questions that even Fisher is asking. On a team that already has some warts, if Fisher can’t get his team to play hard and play together, this year is going nowhere fast.
  4. New Mexico (5-2) – On Saturday, the Lobos went to Purdue and lost by 12 in a game where they were more or less outclassed from start to finish. But, you know what? It is easy to come away from that game feeling better about the Lobos chances in the Mountain West after that game. A lot went wrong: they got absolutely killed on the boards by a much bigger team; they turned it over 19 times with everybody getting in on the fun; and they got outscored by 21-11 from the line. But those Boilermakers are very, very good. What we saw out of the Lobos was a lot of fight, challenging shots, diving for loose balls, and relying on guards Elijah Brown and Cullen Neal for offense. New Mexico is not going to see a front line like that again this season, so at least they can take away the experience of battling with a bigger, badder team.
  5. Fresno State (6-2) – The Bulldogs first game against a D-I opponent after their understandable first loss of the season to Oregon, was a road trip to Cal Poly. And Cal Poly is a fine squad. But, if we’re supposed to believe that Rodney Terry’s bunch can stay in the mix near the top of the Mountain West, that’s a game where they need to show their stuff, especially after a loss. The result? A slow-bleed 12-point loss painted on a canvas of 5-22 shooting from behind the arc. The Bulldogs tried to scrap it out in the pain, pulling down 18 offensive boards, but couldn’t regularly get easy looks from inside, while senior star Marvelle Harris shot his team out of it with nine misses in ten attempts from deep. There’s talent in Fresno – talent enough even to give Arizona a run in McKale tonight – but they’ve got a lot to prove first.
  6. Colorado State (5-3) – When last we left the Rams, they were coming off a come-from-ahead double-overtime loss to UTEP that didn’t have to be qualified as demoralizing. Since then, they’ve had two more losses in winnable games. And along the way, as Matt Stephens of the Coloradoan reports, cracks in the foundation have begun to form. Playing for Larry Eustachy isn’t always easy, but Sunday’s loss to Colorado showed those fractures loud and clear. After a first half in which the Rams seemingly could not be stopped on offense, the second half devolved into one-on-one forays absent much thought, with Eustachy and junior point guard John Gillon getting into it a bit on the sideline as well. Much like Steve Fisher at SDSU, Eustachy is frustrated with his talented bunch. And unless things get turned around in a hurry, this could go south.
  7. Utah State (5-1) – Jalen Moore got back on track for the Aggies at Missouri State last Tuesday, going for 20, Missouri-transfer Shane Rector hit a couple game-winning free throws with three seconds left and this team has a pair of halfway-decent road wins under its belt. All of that will serve them well when they head to Provo to face BYU tonight.
  8. Nevada (4-2) – The Wolf Pack went to Oregon State on Saturday and gave the Beavers all they wanted. But the big story is senior center A.J. West and his disappearance from playing a big role on this team. West is a guy who was named to the third team all-conference last season, a guy, now in his third year in Reno, who has scored in every game he’s played in. And yet on Sunday, in a tight game against a Pac-12 team, he played a total of six minutes in the second half, a number not influenced by a foul total. Instead, as Chris Murray of the Reno Gazette-Journal reports, new head coach Eric Musselman says he just wanted to play a small lineup. Now, there’s a lot here. First, yes, that small lineup, featuring long, athletic, attacking wings like Marqueze Coleman, D.J. Fenner, and Tyron Criswell did look really good. And second, freshman big man Cameron Oliver has been one of the most promising new players in the conference, a long and disruptive interior force who blocks shots, rebounds and is really good as the big in the pick and roll. But there seems to be something more going on here. West had seven boards (including five on the offensive end) in his 22 minutes on Saturday, but now has played 26 or fewer minutes in each of the team’s last four games and has only broken 29 once this year (in a double overtime game). Last year, the only time West wasn’t getting minutes in the 30s was when he was in foul trouble or when the game was a blowout. This story may be worth keeping an eye on as the new head coach and the incumbent leader may not exactly be seeing eye to eye.

    After Being An All-Conference Type, A.J. West Is Pulling A Disappearing Act This Year (Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports)

    After Being An All-Conference Type, A.J. West Is Pulling A Disappearing Act This Year (Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports)

  9. Wyoming (5-3) – You weren’t ready to write off Larry Shyatt and the Cowboys, were you? This week, the Cowboys went to Denver and came away with a strong 16-point win, then hosted California and their trio of future NBA draft picks and the ‘Pokes took them to overtime before finally succumbing. In that game, amidst guys whose names you see near the top of NBA mock drafts, senior guard Josh Adams was, hands down, the best player on the floor, throwing in 32 points on 21 attempts, handing out four assists and doing everything he could to keep his team in the game, even knocking in the overtime-forcing bucket just minutes after turning an ankle. The players around his are starting to get used to their new roles and you can bet Laramie is going to be a tough place to play this winter.
  10. Air Force (6-3) – In the Falcons two games against a similar level of competition this week, Dave Pilipovich’s team won twice – against The Citadel and at Denver. Against Ohio State last night? Not so much. Hayden Graham and Trevor Lyons continued their strong play this week, even against the Buckeyes. But again it is the 6’11” Zach Moer who catches the eye. In the first two games of the week, the senior averaged 14.5 points and 7.5 boards, quite an accomplishment for a guy whose career highs were eight points and seven boards prior to this season. But against that high class of competition, Moer struggled; just three points on seven field goal attempts and three rebounds. He’s a good story, but could struggle against the more athletic frontlines in this league.
  11. San Jose State (4-5) – The Spartans are my pet team this year. There are going to be struggles, as this week’s pair of road losses – by three at Santa Clara and by 18 at Marquette – will attest. But given the depths from which this team is emerging, it is clear that they’re one of the most improved. Frank Rogers added another double-double against Santa Clara (18/13), before getting slowed by Marquette’s size and athleticism. Princeton Onwas showed his versatility in that game with 15 points, seven boards, four dimes and a couple steals, but also showed an over-exuberance, with eight turnovers coupled with a 5-of-15 mark from the field. Still, there’s effort here and the Spartans aren’t the total walkover they were last season. Learning to turn tight losses into tight wins is a skill that must come next, but there are reasons to believe Dave Wojcik is a guy who can teach that. More coming from San Jose.
AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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One response to “Checking in on… the Mountain West”

  1. Gus says:

    Will there be any more updates?

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